So You Think You Can Tech: File Types

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Tech Tuesday

#TechTuesday with E-Services

This ever happen to you? Someone sends you a file, probably something they made on their personal computer, and when you try to open it nothing happens. Or worse, something does happen. You get a big warning screen saying your computer cannot open that file type. What the heck are they talking about? File types? What are those?

Well good news weary internet traveler, I have an answer for you.

#What are File Types?

Everything in the world is compartmentalized via some criteria. Maybe you’re part of the Boomers, or you’re Vegan. Maybe you’re a gamer. A woman. A man. Whatever, whoever, you are, there is some way we can place you into a box and categorize you. The same is true for the software in your computer.

File Types, also known as File Extensions, are the way we categorize everything in your computer, your phone, and the internet. You see these whenever you are looking at a document, even if you don’t notice them. Let’s take that file someone sent you I mentioned earlier. When you tried to open it, it was labeled, “important_file.pdf”. You can find the File Type at the end of the file name. See that part that says, “.pdf”? That’s what we are looking for.

#PDF? That sounds familiar…

It should. PDF is a common File Type. So common is it, one could almost say it is universal. Short for Portable Document Format, PDF has been around since the 1990’s for storing documents in a format independent of any operating system or program. These days we see them all over the place, used as digital forms, copies of important documents, even books.

Whenever you have a file marked as a PDF you are normally dealing with something your computer can open. If, for whatever reason, it won’t open then you just need to download the free program, Adobe Acrobat. In all honesty though, if you have a modern PC or Mac, then your computer’s browser should have the ability to open it. Some features might require Adobe Acrobat, such as digital signing, but you don’t have to download it just to print.

#I have Adobe Acrobat but it keeps opening in my browser. What’s up with that?

What’s up, my friend, is that you have a file association problem. Now while this sounds bad, it really isn’t. A file association is a flag on a particular File Type. This flag, along with telling the computer what kind of file it is, also tells the computer which program to open your file in.

If every time you go to open a PDF it calls up Microsoft Edge rather than Adobe Acrobat then the file association is linking PDF files to your browser. This association can be addressed in a few ways, one is short term and the other lasts longer but does not need to be permanent.

The quick way, what I find especially helpful if I just need one document opened in a particular program, is Right-Clicking on the document. When you do this you open a list of choices. One among the many is listed as “Open with.” Hovering over this option will allow you to see the programs your computer recognizes might also open your file. Here you can use the one you want/need without changing the overall file association.

But what if you want to change the association? What if the thought of one more PDF opening in Edge drives you to the precipice of insanity? Well do I have news for you! For most files you can change the program associated with it whenever you want. Doing so is easy and reversible. All you need to do is find a file whose association is not what you want. Right-Click the document and go to the “Open with” option. At the bottom of this panel there is an option that says “Choose another app.” When you choose this you will see a new screen with many of the options you saw on the “Open with” list. Choose the program you wish to use, then at the bottom of the screen there will be a box with, “Always use this app to open—file extension name—files.” Once you have chosen this you can change it later if you do not like the results.

#Okay, that’s great! What about all those other File Types?

Heh, heh, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? Most of the time you don’t need to worry about them. Really the only time we interact with a File Type is when someone sends us an email and we wonder what the heck a jpg is. It’s a picture by the way. Instead of going through them all, I will give you this link: It is a Microsoft site with some common File Extensions.

But do you know the best way to figure out what something is? Google it. Just open up another window and type the File Type into the search bar. It will tell you all you need to know about it and which programs might open it.

Do you know the File Types I see people get tripped up with the most? The ones dealing with the LibreOffice suite. For those of you who’ve used Microsoft Office all your life, LibreOffice is a free, independently-produced version of the popular software package. Unlike Microsoft’s baby, which saves files in DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX, for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint respectively, LibreOffice saves in the Open Document format. ODT for Writer, ODS for Calc, and ODP for Impress. If you are unable to assign those formats to Word, Excel, or PowerPoint using the association trick I showed you earlier, then you can still open them inside the appropriate Office program.

#Which ones are safe though?

You’ve probably heard over the years not to click on or download certain files. These files were dubbed, ‘bad’, as if they smoked in the bathroom and wore leather jackets. Over time pretty much every file type has been targeted by the ‘bad guys’ as ways of getting a virus into your system. There is one File Type that is safe. The white bread of the computer world.

The simple text file. Or TXT, if you are looking at the File Extension.

If you have never looked at a text file I suggest you do, if only because of how simple it is. Some authors write their entire books in them due to their simplicity. I personally have set up the basis of a website inside of a text file for the same reason. Text files are safe because only text can be inside them. You could have the code for the most virulent virus known to computer-kind written out in a text file but since it is only text the computer won’t run it.

That being said, make sure you read the entire file name before you open it. A file can be named “safething.txt.exe”. Notice how it has two extensions? One, the, “.txt”, is part of the file name and not really an extension. Only the, “.exe” is an extension in this example. In this case the file isn’t safe because it really is an EXE or executable file. While executable file sounds bad, it simply means it is a file that will run a program when clicked on. In this instance it is probably bad because it is relying on you to not notice the “.exe”. There are many reputable, and necessary, programs in your computer that do end in “.exe” and you should feel free to use them.

If you are unsure whether you are seeing the full File Extension then, in your Windows File Explorer click on the View Tab. There you should be able to see a box saying, “File name extension”. Make sure it is checked. With it on, you should be able to see any strange extension shenanigans.

#Anything else?

Oh tons! But a lot of it goes beyond the bounds of this post. If all you take away from this is that you can open a file in multiple programs, then I count that as a win. For everything else, you can refer back to this. There also is the all-powerful google. Don’t worry though, expect to see more from me.

Until then, have fun, find adventure, and stay safe.

The Jacksonville Public Library's E-Services Department is dedicated to helping users learn and master the technology needed in today's economy. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, join us for our online computer classes. All of our classes are free and open to the public.

John Carter

John Carter

Husband, Father, Digital Artist, and Teacher, these are but a few of the hats John Carter wears. If he is not at one of our many public libraries hosting a computer class or helping someone in an appointment you can find John working in his yard practicing hügelkultur, hidden away sketching and writing, making a pilgrimage to Disney World, or trying new recipes in the kitchen.

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